Visit to the Ishpingo Community

Our first thing today is not until 8am so we get lots of rest.


I dreamed I was hired to use a computer program to teach English to a young boy. I felt confident that it would work really well.


We ate a good breakfast as a last meal before heading out to visit an Achuar community and spend the night. It would be a last meal for those of us who would be trying the natem that night. It was recommended to fast before that experience.

We agreed to only take one camera.

Linda would maybe take one picture of all of us with the shaman.

We took a long canoe ride down the Pastaza River. One interesting sight along the way was piles of butterflies – maybe more than 100 – on the shore and they would sometimes lift up in a brilliantly colored cloud.


We scrambled up the small cliff after reaching the community. At the top of the cliff we came across the first home. There was a long conversation in Achuar which is part of a traditional greeting. The head of this household is a young man who is also the leader of their community. Frank and I are following the instructions to not have prolonged direct eye contact with any of the women. A short walk and we are at the center of the community. A dirt airstrip is at the center. The houses are nearly all traditional thatched roof with a wall of boards extending about 6 feet up all around. We settle into one of these shelters along the runway. Other buildings include a little church (Catholic), a school/office where the radio is and the shamans hut. There are ducks, a cow or two and chickens and about 60 people.


The women go off to be with the women from the community and us two men stick with Simon and the community leader. Earlier they showed us where to pee and crap. Frank and I learn how to weave together these short small stakes with sharp ends. For communication we had to rely on my Spanish which was rough, but we figured it out. We did not know for sure what we were making but later learned it was a hair comb. It worked pretty well. The cord we used to tie the sticks together was the plant we learned to get the threads from a couple days ago. Here is what a finished comb would look like:

The women learned how to make the clay bowls for cicha – the fermented main drink made from the manioc root.

A finished bowl would look like this:

We then went to visit the shaman. His name is Puanchir.

We sat at one end of the house while he sat near the center of the house and worked on a basket he was weaving. We each introduced ourselves using our best Spanish for Simon to translate into Achuar. We had a good long conversation in this way. We learned he came from a village far away but moved here because he really liked it. He had 5 wives but 3 have died. I think he has more than 15 children. He first had an idea he might be a shaman because of this vivid dream he had as a child. Later he had a strong desire to help people that got sick and through learning from another shaman and using the vine, natem,  for visions, he became a shaman. He generally heals everyone that comes to him, but sometimes he recognizes that the illness must be cured using western medicine and in these cases he does not attempt a cure. He has once been to Quito and he has been to Puyo. He went to Quito recently to join a protest to keep oil companies out of this area. He is happy with his life and has a feeling everything will work out well for his community – even with all the rapid changes like airplanes, mosquito netting, flashlights, plastic bottles and foreign visitors to name just a few things. He told us he had one bad experience with western medicine where he brought his wife to Puyo for a cure from western medicine but it did not work. He asked about our experiences with western medicine and we gave him an earful! Soon after we entered, one of the shamans wives served us all chicha. Several of us just took a polite sip, but Charlotte was the first to finish her entire bowl. I finished a bowl and before long our bowls were refilled and we finished a second bowl. It has an interesting effect. It made it a bit easier to handle the heat, I felt a little slower and more relaxed. Most of the group then had lunch but those taking part in the evening ceremony ate very little or fasted. A big group of the community brought over banana leaves and they swept our shelter and put down the leaves. Then mosquito netting went up and mats got filled with air. Charlotte and I got a double mosquito net.


The Achuar language has no past or future tense!

Think about that.


Learn a new language:

   Winyahi - means, Hello

   Makatai - means, enough, thank you



Even though we are far beyond indoor plumbing right now, I just remembered a travel tip for South America. The tip is, don’t put toilet paper in the toilet. There will be a bucket next to the toilet to put the paper in.


A plane landed and dropped off supplies and took off again a few minutes later.


We gathered at a path into the forest. We will do a silent meditation walk. About 15 minutes into the walk we come across a giant fig tree. We learn how these giant trees are considered sacred and are never harmed. Walking along the path past a huge kapok tree, something fluffy drifts down and Cuqui catches it. It’s kapok fiber! The next thing we do is all spread out and leave the path so none of us can see each other.

For a long time we just be, silent, alone with the forest.


Coming back to the village we walk to the end of the runway where we can see the big river. Howler monkeys are roaring on the other side. W learn they make that sound to terrify all the other animals so they can stay in the same place. There is one animal for the howlers to fear. The harpy eagle. This eagle, as large as a small person, can swoop down and with its huge claws, grab a howler monkey right out of a tree.

To listen to a 45 second clip of what a howler sounds like go here. Just imagine what a whole troop of them sounds like.  (scroll down a little ways to where it says multimedia.)


Night falls. The ceremony helpers meet to learn how to assist tonight. As a group we walked over to the shaman’s lodge and took seats in the dark space. The shaman sat on a traditional turtle bench in the center of the room. He used a flashlight to pour the natem from a plastic bottle into a small clay container about the size of a shot glass. Before calling each of us up for the natem, the shaman did a chant with his breathing. Not a real whistle but almost. I volunteered to go first and went in front of the shaman and he handed me the natem and the instructions were to drink it all down at once. It was kind of foul tasting. I was given another drink of something to wash my mouth out and instructed to spit it out right next to me. A couple helpers got me back to my bench. The other three; Charlotte, Louisa and Frank went up one at a time and drank the natem. For maybe 10 minutes I noticed no change. Then my vision became affected. It didn’t seem to matter if my eyes were open or closed. A pattern started forming all around the periphery of my sight. It was bars of black and yellow and orange and kept changing. Inside this frame my sight was divided in 4 to 6 or 8 sections from the center like a mandala. In each section there was rapidly changing geometrics and symbols. They were changing so fast I could not focus on them. Helpers came and got me on both sides. I could not stand on my own. They brought me to a seat directly in front of the shaman. The shaman began chanting and talking and shaking some plants all over my face, shoulders, arms and as he did this the colors I was seeing got very bright and kept changing rapidly. Through all of this there was a part of my mind that was clear about where I was and what was happening. When this healing was over, helpers got me back to my bench. I sat there as Charlotte got up for her healing in front of the shaman. About half way through Charlotte’s session I began to have the first activity in my stomach. It would come in waves of 3-4 or 5 a few seconds apart and then a minute or more of relative calm. I looked behind the bench for a place to throw up. I began making some pretty scary, raw, unearthly sounds but did not vomit. Helpers saw I was ready to let go, so they got me up and out the door. They helped me stagger a few yards to the side and Simon held me and for the next half hour or so the ungodly activity and bizarre, scary, gut wrenching vomit sounds kept coming from me. In all of this I had actually vomited very little. But I was getting a big insight into what was going on. I realized that I had probably not vomited in nearly 50 years. In Catholic grade school, the school lunch program was so bad kids vomited every day. The nuns made the sick kids clean up the mess and they did a horrible job. The bathroom stink was so bad, I would never use it and learned to hold it in until I got home each day. In the course of this, I trained myself to instinctively suppress the urge to vomit.  And so now, when vomiting was critical to get the toxins out of my body, even though my mind was fully open to it, the suppression always kicked in too quickly for my mind to have any effect. I surrendered myself to natem. I repeated over and over, “body of natem, mind of natem, No resistance.” I was exhausted. Helpers held me and took me to a nearby bed of banana leaves. I could hear the others making vomiting sounds. I could hear almost everything Charlotte was saying even though it was in a whisper a good ways away. On the banana leaf bed I continued with the violent upheavals. The sounds were sort of frightening. I had never heard these sounds come out of my body before. Helpers tried all kinds of things to aid me. We changed positions. Gazed at the stars. Deep breathing. Drinking different substances. After this ordeal had continued for a very long time (hours?) the shaman came out and said he could help me. They brought me back inside the lodge and sat me in front of the shaman. He worked on me in much the same way as the first time, but this time I was asked to stick my tongue way out. The shaman held my tongue in both hands and seemed to be checking out all the different parts and then he sucked hard on a particular part of my tongue. This was repeated several times. They brought me back to the banana leaf bed. I slowly began to understand that the shaman had made it possible for me not to have to throw up any more. Gradually the wrenching episodes diminished. I felt a way of shifting toward more humility and this helped. I kept drifting from consciousness into hypnagogic dream states. The only one of these states I could later remember was watching a grassy hillside from nearly 100 yards away. On the hillside was about 20-30 people – all relatives – playing with a ball and laughing and enjoying the beautiful day. I was soaked in sweat and had been drained of energy from all these violent spasms. Helpers lifted me up and took me across the airstrip back to where our mosquito net beds were. Charlotte and all the others were already there. I laid there not sure what would happen next. I tried to stay in that more humble state of mind. By more humble I mean letting go of my name and who or what I thought I was and just directly experienced the moment. But I wondered if natem would try some kind of new surprise attack and get the vomit past my suppression mechanisms. All night I laid there in this fragile state. I heard Charlotte vomiting and having diarrhea. As the night wore on I heard the shaman come over and soon afterward a rooster started crowing. The rooster came right up to our beds and crowed loudly. It was still dark. I could hear some commotion. The community was getting up to do their morning dream sharing ceremony. Still drained of energy and fragile, I laid there as the sky got lighter. Long after everyone else had gotten up, I tried staggering to my feet. I could barely walk. I had a cup of tea and went for a very slow walk down the runway with Charlotte helping to hold me up.


Charlotte’s natem experience in her words:

I drank the natem. It didn’t taste that bad. I noticed that Luke couldn’t walk well when going up and coming back from the healing from the shaman. I got very worried about him. I was able to walk and not feeling much. I was thinking I was not going to have an experience. Luke became sick and they took him out. A while later I started to become nauseated and they took me out to vomit. I started to get violently ill – more than others except Luke. I had to lie down on the banana leafs in order to not feel so nauseated. I felt extremely nauseated and started farting a lot. I was asked if I wanted to go to the bathroom and I said no. Then I changed my mind and they had to almost carry me over because I couldn’t walk I was so sick. I defecated a huge amount. I was offered to hold onto a helpers leg but I preferred to hold myself up with my hands. Had to wipe myself, stand up and pull my pants back up. Said I just wanted to lie down. Was taken back to the banana leafs and laid down on my side. Tried to ride out the sickness.  Heard Luke and was worried for him because I could tell he was having a hard time but I was helpless to do anything. Called out to him several times, “I love you, Luke”. Had to go to the bathroom again and had a tremendous amount of diarrhea. Didn’t want to stand up again just wanted to lie down. They literally had to carry me back to the banana leafs. I got concerned about Luke again and called out to him. Again they told me not to worry about him, that he was being well taken care of and just concentrate on my own experience. I told them that I couldn’t help but be concerned about him, that’s just the way it is. Again I had to go to the bathroom with a huge amount of diarrhea. Between the diarrhea and vomiting, I was having a violent reaction to the natem. I didn’t know I had that much feces in me. They finally came and said they were putting everyone to bed. I didn’t want to get up again but they literally again had to carry me to the sleeping place. They said afterward that when they carried me back to the banana leaves, I would curl up in the fetal position and would not move until I asked to go to the bathroom. Eventually I reached over and realized Luke wasn’t beside me and cried out, “Where’s Luke?” Pavithra said he was with the shaman which alarmed me. I cried out to tell them to go and tell him I needed him here to know he was ok. Cuqui then told me he was sitting outside because he didn’t want to come in right now. I told her to tell him to come in. They brought him in and I felt more comforted. I remained nauseated and vomited late into the night beside my bed. When I vomited I could feel I probably needed to defecate again but I tried to hold it in rather than ask someone to take me so I wouldn’t have to get up again. Finally maybe an hour before day light the spasm’s of vomiting gave way and I knew I was going to be ok. Having to have help defecating and being helped to walk or function at all was surprisingly not too embarrassing.


Later in the morning we all went back to the shaman’s hut where he answered any questions we had. I asked about the image of my relatives and learned that in the healing he did with me, he was blowing into me a sense of caring about family. Everyone asked at least one question about their experience. At one point Charlotte started sobbing but could not say why. While talking with us, the shaman was making a fan out of foot long black feathers and weaving them together. Later he took out a violin that his son had made for him and played us several songs. They reminded me of the sub-whistling sounds he had made during the healings. Several women from the community shared the songs they sing to the plants in the garden. They asked us to share and Charlotte and I put a wood seat out in the center of the room. I used my Osage Indian cutting tool to beat out a rhythm and we sang three stanzas of the Sioux Indian, “all-my-relations” chant. Louisa sang a Buddhist chant. Pavithra sang a beautiful song in German and we all sang the “If you want to be happy, clap your hands” song. Next about 6 or 7 families brought out the crafts they had made to show us and sell to us. They spread them out on banana leaves and as we bought them we gave the money to each family. We got three chicha bowls, 2 combs like the one Frank and I helped make and 2 necklaces and 1 bracelet. We took one group picture.

We said our goodbyes and brought our things back to the boat.

As we launched the boat into the river, a small boat dug out from a single tree got loose and started down the swift river current. We looped around a couple times until we were able to grab it and get it safely tied to a branch near where it came from. Within an hour we had made it back upstream to Kapawi Lodge. Immediately we took a nap.


next Swimming with the Piranha